The A350 XWB, photo credit Airbus

Piloting the UK aerospace sector towards a successful future

Graham Chisnall, managing director of Aerospace and Operations at ADS, the trade organisation for aerospace, defence and security industries, outlines how the government is working alongside the aerospace sector to take the industry into the next decade.

In the midst of its first economic downturn since the 1990s a massively overdrawn UK is struggling to ride the turbulence caused by the new government’s spending cuts. The aerospace industry sector, however, has not only successfully navigated its way past government shears but has actually thrived in the economic storm. 

Number one in Europe

With an annual turnover of £22.2bn, the UK aerospace industry is number one in Europe by revenue and number two in the world behind the US. As a high-technology industry it has many spin-offs to the rest of the economy including radar, composite materials and jet engines. Not surprising then that in the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Strategic Defence and Security Review nervous key members of the aerospace sector were anxious to preserve the industry’s recession-proof casing, and flag the importance of aerospace to the government’s growth ambitions for the economy.

ADS has a whole series of agendas designed to sustain, improve and develop the aerospace industry and has agreed a meeting structure with Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and with the Minister of State for BIS, Mark Prisk.

“There are four meetings a year,” explains Chisnall. “Two with Vince Cable, Mark Prisk and senior leaders of the aerospace industry to discuss the strategic agenda for the sector which is known as the Aerospace Leadership Council (ALC), and two with the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) which Mark Prisk co-chairs with our vp of aerospace Marcus Bryson – who is also ceo of GKN Aerospace. The idea of the AGP meeting is to implement a game-plan to address the strategic issues raised at the ALC meeting.”

Repeating success with the next generation

The overall agenda of the Aerospace Growth Partnership is to examine how the UK can position itself to repeat its current success with the next generation of commercial aircraft programmes. Through the AGP Chisnall and BIS will work on an overall strategy for the UK.

“Right now we have a stunningly successful sector. It’s growing rapidly and will do for the next four or five years,” states Chisnall. “Airbus have just announced a further increase in production rate on their short range narrow body aircraft the A320 – they’re going to ramp up production rates on that to 42 a month – which is unprecedented.”

But the next generation A320 won’t come into service until 2025 because Airbus want to capture as much leading edge technology on that platform as possible. So the UK needs to be equipped with mature enough technology in time to suit the new programmes.  

“We need to examine what the UK’s ambitions should be on the new programmes, what technology is going to be required to position ourselves given it’s going to be a global competition and if we are configured correctly in terms of maximising our opportunities,” says Chisnall.

Investing in the future

Another key area that Chisnall is keen to address is the next generation of engineering and manufacturing skills in this country. Currently some 36 per cent of UK aerospace industry employees have a degree or equivalent with roughly a third working in R&D. But there is much room for improvement.

“This is a very significant issue for the UK - we have to push all buttons to encourage a motivated, able workforce. On the back of that the government has got to push on the agenda itself.”

Chisnall feels that the UK needs more STEM focusing schools and intensified schemes at universities to encourage students to take up STEM degrees.

“I think the what the government really needs to grasp is that aerospace is probably one of the few truly global industries these days – more so than automobiles. The large companies that drive business in aerospace have many international options - one of things they study very seriously when they look to where they are going to invest for the future is the skills agenda for that country. For example, I know a number of large companies who have chosen to invest in Singapore partly because it has convinced them that it has a very long-term vision for STEM-based education. We have to be in that race.”

With Nick Clegg recently stating the importance of aerospace as a key growth driver that the government is going to look to as it recovers the economy is Chisnall optimistic about the government’s long-term involvement?

“I think that ADS is getting its message through slowly and surely. There isn’t a great pot of money to help in the short-term so it’s up to us to make our case to manage the short-term issues, in order to maintain this very successful business.

If you do the work seriously and sensibly, and you do it jointly with the government – it can actually have not only huge power but also long legs.”

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